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Moderate drinking in pregnancy – not risky

High levels of drinking affect attention span of child

Jo Carlowe

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Low and moderate weekly alcohol consumption in early pregnancy is not associated with adverse neuropsychological effects in children according to new research.

The finding is published today in a series of papers in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

However, high levels of alcohol per week were linked with a lower attention span among the children studied.

The Danish researchers have produced five papers looking at the effects of low, moderate, high and binge drinking on five year olds. Women were recruited from the Danish National Birth Cohort at their first antenatal visit.

Low average weekly alcohol consumption was defined as 1-4 drinks per week, moderate as 5-8 drinks per week and high levels as 9 or more drinks per week. Binge drinking was defined as intake of 5 or more drinks on a single occasion. Participants who did not drink during pregnancy were included as the unexposed reference group.

The definition of a drink in these papers comes from the Danish National Board of Health, which states one standard drink is equal to 12 grams of pure alcohol. In the UK the volume of alcohol in a drink is measured in units and one unit of alcohol is defined as 7.9 grams.

1,628 women took part in the studies. The average maternal age was 30.9 years, 50.1% were first-time mothers, 12.1% were single and 31.4% reported smoking during pregnancy.

The papers looked at the effects of alcohol on IQ, attention span, executive functions such as planning, organisation, and self-control in five year old children.

Overall, the papers found that low to moderate weekly drinking in early pregnancy had no significant effect on neurodevelopment of children aged five years, nor did binge drinking. Focusing on children's IQ and executive functions, no differences in test performance were observed between children whose mothers reported 1-4 or 5-8 drinks/week per week in pregnancy compared to children of abstaining mothers. However one finding showed that high levels of alcohol, intake of 9 or more drinks per week, was associated with lower attention span amongst five year olds.

Attention was measured using the Test of Everyday Attention for Children at Five (TEACh-5) which measures a child's selective attention and sustained attention. There were no significant effects on test performance in children of mothers drinking up to eight drinks per week compared to children of abstaining mothers. However, there was a significant association between maternal consumption of 9 or more drinks per week and risk of low overall attention score.

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